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Funny Things May Happen on Way Out of Forum

June 14, 1998|MARK HEISLER

Everybody smile for the group picture: Everything is OK again with the Lakers, or so they're about to tell you.

Jerry West is staying and might even consider signing a new contract next summer (he won't know until he gets to that point and sees how he feels, etc.). He still loves Jerry Buss, who loves him back (but may say nothing, having managed to stay out of sight this long). Del Harris will be back (he was never worried despite the hysteria in the press, etc.).

Then there's the real story: All they've done is patch things up so they can get through the season.

West will finish the last year on his contract as head of the basketball operation because Buss has agreed to pay him the balance of a deferred bonus, thought to be about $2 million. Then West will be a free agent.

Buss wanted to sign him to an extension in return for giving him the $2 million, but, according to sources, with only a modest raise. West makes $1.25 million, so let's say the new deal would have paid $1.5 million to $1.75 million a year.

West is determined not to hire out cheaply again, even if all of his underwear is purple and gold, not with the prospect of Donald T. Sterling giving him 5% of the Clippers and a $5-million salary.

Nor is everything back to snuggly. Buss took his time getting back to West after their June 2 meeting, during which time, friends say, West broke his personal record for head shakes and eye rolls. West was finally told he'd get the $2 million last week--not by Buss but by one of the owner's financial people.

Having at least established who will be running the organization next season, the Lakers have begun reconfiguring the team.

Harris is coming back, although no word so far on whether they'll do the right thing and extend him for a season, or whether money is so tight, they'll see how it goes with a white-thatched lame duck.

Having made the same mistakes over and over, they'd like to try making some new ones, or in other words, does anyone want Nick Van Exel? They may move him even if they can't get a point guard back. They're considering starting Kobe Bryant and Eddie Jones, which would certainly be exciting, one way or the other.

In keeping with the new fiscally responsible motif, Elden Campbell, his intermittent biorhythms and $7-million salary are ticketed for elsewhere.

If they can get a real power forward, their faux four, Robert Horry and his $5-million-a-year will be outward bound too.

Of course, the Lakers still have a lot to work with and may have learned some hard lessons, so this could work out.

Of course, the first time they win two in a row, everyone will jump on the bandwagon (if they get to 10, I'll join in, I've done it before, I can do it again).

Of course, if they lose two in a row in exhibition season, the media will start speculating about Delmer, and if they get to five, Buss may pull the plug (he almost did it before, he could do it again.)

Stability? No, but then, these are the '90s: Who has any of that? The greatest dynasty we've seen in 30 years has dominated while fighting a civil war at the same time.

The real tip-off on the Laker situation will come soon, when they try to sign Bryant to an extension. Under the old regime--before West got upset--it would have been easy. They would have offered a king's ransom, say $100 million for six seasons, and he'd have signed, because he likes it here.

Now all bets are off. If Bryant signs, it will mean West has assured Kobe's agent, and Jerry's friend, Arn Tellem, everything is cool and he'll be staying on.

If West tells Tellem he doesn't know, Bryant and Tellem will, in all likelihood, tell the Lakers they'll wait until next summer to see how this plays out.

So next summer, Bryant, West and Shaquille O'Neal can become free agents. Get it? The Lakers will be like the Bulls this season, without the five titles.

Laker fans, better get your rest this summer and come ready in the fall, because winter and spring could be something.


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